Whether vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian, plant-based diets are on the rise in popularity, and for good reason. A plant-centric diet can provide a range of health perks, from a lower risk for heart disease and certain forms of cancer to enhanced memory and mental sharpness as you age. The perks of plant-based eating go far beyond physical wellness, however.
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“I went vegan because I’m genetically prone to high cholesterol,” says Kelly, a mom of two in Los Angeles. “My cholesterol is normal now, which is awesome, but what really surprised me is how much better I feel mentally and emotionally.”
By not eating fish, chicken or other animals, you save an average of eight animals a month.
Here are some of the perks you can expect to gain emotionally if you decide to swap out animal products for plants:
Eating in Line With Your Values
When you care deeply for animals, the planet or both, it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of daunting current events and statistics about the environment. Eating a plant-based diet gives you the assurance that you’re making a positive impact with every meal choice.
By not eating fish, chicken or other animals, for example, you save an average of eight animals per month, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or more than 100 each year.
A plant-based diet also cuts your carbon footprint significantly. Meat production requires significantly more land and water than plant production and emits far more toxic chemicals into the environment. Research shows that giving up beef would do more to reduce environmental impact than giving up cars.
“Honestly, I didn’t think much about saving animals when I became vegan,” says Kelly. “Now I take pride in knowing I’m doing something to protect them — and also helping the planet at the same time.”
I’ve also found that some people who’ve dieted compulsively or who’ve grappled with eating disorders gain empowerment from a plant-based diet. If your attitudes about food and eating are historically negative, eating in a way that provides a sense of doing good can be powerfully positive — as long as you find a sense of freedom in the diet versus using it as a means of restriction.
Eating Brain-Healthy Nutrients
Turkey gets a lot of credit for providing tryptophan, a chemical that promotes calmness. But did you know that tryptophan doesn’t do you much good without carbs? The two substances work synergistically to promote calm feelings, such as restfulness. Many plant sources provide tryptophan and carbohydrates, making them a win-win. Nuts, nut butters, peanuts, seeds and soy all provide valuable amounts of tryptophan.
Other plant-based diet staples can help you meet your needs for omega-3 fats, which play an important role in brain health and function — essential aspects of emotional well-being. Good sources include dark leafy greens, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, soy and walnuts. The antioxidants found in colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains also promote optimal brain function.
Research shows that a typical Western diet, on the other hand, rich in inflammatory foods like fatty meats and dairy products, could increase your risk for depression.
Eating Tips for Making the Switch
If you want the perks of a plant-based diet but find the shift challenging, ease into it by gradually swapping out animal products with plant-based alternatives you enjoy.
Have a veggie burger instead of turkey or add beans or lentils to pasta sauce instead of ground beef. Use soy milk or almond milk instead of cow milk in cereal, coffee and creamy recipes, opting for organic or non-GMO soy products — which are becoming readily available — for maximum environmental perks. If you have a health condition or want more support, talk to your doctor or a dietitian well versed in plant-based nutrition.
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t eat a plant-based diet “perfectly.” Doing your best and focusing on the positives go a long way toward enhancing emotional well-being and overall success.
Readers — Are you now eating or have you ever tried a plant-based diet? Was it hard to cut out meat? What tips or tricks do you have for making the shift? Leave a comment below and let us know!
August McLaughlin is a nationally recognized health and sexuality writer, former nutritional therapist and creator of the empowering brand Girl Boner®, with work appearing in DAME magazine, the Huffington Post and more. Known for melding personal passion, artistry and activism, August uses her skills as a public speaker and journalist to inspire women to embrace their bodies and selves, making way for fuller, more authentic lives.